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By TheophileEscargot (Sat Apr 26, 2008 at 11:11:04 PM EST) Reading, Listening, Web (all tags)
Listening: "Conquest of the Americas". Web.

Finished TTC course Conquest of the Americas by Marshall C. Eakin. 24 lectures. Concentrates much more on Latin America than north North America, but gives a lucid and thorough overview of that area. He's particularly strong on the social and cultural side of things. He quotes extracts from contemporary sources at length, and does several fascinating little pocket bios of people with interesting lives, which keeps the series from getting too dry.

Eakon points out some factors as important that I hadn't thought about. As well as lacking bronze, steel and the wheel, the South Americans lacked useful beasts of burden. Apparently puny alpacas are no substitute for horses, mules, donkeys or oxen.

The more well-known factor is that the Native Americans had no immunity to old-world diseases like smallpox, and so were devastated on contact.

I'm a little bit skeptical about some of the emphases he puts on things though. He talks a lot about the New World silver (and to a lesser extent gold) as a big driver of economic growth in Europe. He doesn't mention the inflationary consequences much though. Update [2008-4-27 11:22:53 by TheophileEscargot]: (Probably because there were very little, see comments). Printing/coining more money alone doesn't really boost the economy much in real times, especially over a long period. I think you have to look at trade, and the increased supply of commodities and labour as the main drivers of growth. Though if there hadn't been any silver or gold, I suppose that would have led to deflation: fortunately the currency more than kept pace with the amount of goods and services around.

I also think he overstates cultural factors like Christianity. He claims Christianity is particularly expansionist, but the Roman, Persian, Hellenistic and Mauryan empires managed a fair amount of conquest without monotheism. And having Genesis give them dominion over the beasts of the earth didn't lead the Israelites to conquer Rome and chuck priests of Jupiter to the lions.

I think he might also be underestimating the military superiority of the conquistadors over the Aztecs and Incas. The conquistadors had the benefit of thousands of years of steady improvement not just of metal weapons, but the tactics of their use. Greek hoplites had an advantage over the less-equipped; the Macedonian phalanx-cavalry combination had an advantage over them; the Roman legions had some kind of edge over Macedonian-style armies; Asian horse-archers outdid the Romans; stirrup-and-couched-lance medieval knights had an advantage over them; and firearms users had and advantage over them.

So, it's not just a question of the guys with guns defeating the guys with sharp rocks: the conquistadors must have had a massive advantage overall, especially including the crucial combination of greater mobility and greater range. So, when they allied with side of a civil war, they must have made an absolutely crucial difference.

One thing about colonial history is that there seems to be an exceptionally emotional tone to it. This does seem to be justified in these cases. The thing about the conquest of the Latin America is that all the crises happened at once. You got the equivalent of the Black Death, the Norman Conquest, the Industrial Revolution and the Terror Famine all happening at once; plus the uniquely large-scale institution of plantation slavery. I think the combination of all these factors does lead to a uniquely horrible period of history.

Another interesting thing Eakin points out is that the Southern US was economically and socially more like Latin America than the North. He does a tiny bit of speculation on what if there'd been no civil war, suggesting that like Latin America it would have taken the US South a lot longer to try to reconcile races and classes.

When you see the history like this, the existence of that strangely divided nation the United States seems a little odd. Surely it would make more sense to have a Greater Canada covering the English-speaking North of North America, and a Greater Mexico extending over the Latin portion. Maybe add a couple of Mid-Western buffer states to keep the peace and you've got a much more logical division.

Overall, a good course: informative and interesting, though maybe a little skewed.

Next TTC is course is Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications by David Sadava. Not sure if it might be too diagrammy to work as an audiobook, will wait and see.

Next classic Western is Warlock by Oakley Hall. Seems pretty good after a few chapters, but not sure I'm really in the mood. Might put it aside now that Rebus #3 Tooth and Nail has turned up.

Eduction. Boys may do better in single-sex classrooms. Abstractions may be better than concrete "two trains"-type examples.

Pics. Parenting 2.0. Penguin in a wetsuit. (Via Metachat).

Old K5 news: Rusty buys a yacht.

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Beasts of burden by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #1 Sat Apr 26, 2008 at 11:48:34 PM EST
This is a point Guns, Germs and Steel works over in a bit of detail. Presumably you're aware of the book, I can only repeat what everyone else has said, it's a great read on the topic.

I hadn't really thought about new world silver like that before. Can you also view it as a symptom of the economy itself expanding, through colonisation?

The Political Science Department of the University of Woolloomooloo

Symptom of an expanding economy by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 1) #2 Sun Apr 27, 2008 at 01:06:34 AM EST
Interesting: I hadn't thought of it like that. The uneven distribution might have been a problem. According to this silver production expanded by "an order of magnitude".

However, compared to the total amount of silver around, that wouldn't necessarily have been that big a deal.

Suppose that the old world had been mining 1 million units per year for a thousand years: that would mean there's a billion units in circulation. Even if the new world mines instantaneously expanded production to 10 million units per year, that's only an inflation rate of 1 percent. Tiny.

Economists always seem to use Spanish silver and gold inflation as an example of the problems of Mercantilism, but Eakin doesn't mention it at all. Maybe it's just a myth?

On "Guns, Germs and Steel": I might read it sometime when I've got a smaller to-read list. As you know I'm not a big fan of the "Non-historian discovers Universal Laws of History which back up all his beliefs" genre. Maybe one day I'll just grit my teeth and do "Guns, Germs and Steel", Samuel Huntingdon's "The Clash of Civilizations" and Peter Turchin's "War and Peace and War" back to back. Might be worth it for the snark value alone ;-)
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Snark value by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #6 Mon Apr 28, 2008 at 06:53:45 AM EST
I can see it now ... the only thing driving you forward being the buckets of scorn you can pour on them at the end ... this is half the reason I enjoyed No Logo :)

The Political Science Department of the University of Woolloomooloo

[ Parent ]
The silver inflation disaster seems a bit mythical by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 1) #4 Sun Apr 27, 2008 at 06:20:23 AM EST
I've done a bit of Googling around and found a couple of sources.

They originally credit it to Adam Smith. I've looked through the Wealth of Nations and he does talk about a modest fall in silver prices due to the new world mines. He doesn't seem to think it was a disaster though. In fact he explicitly says that this doesn't affect interest rates. He goes on quite a bit about how since money is only valuable for what it can purchase, so this effect isn't that important.

Those articles cite as evidence:

  • A 15-fold increase in the currency of France, over a century. I make that 2.8% per year.
  • In Naples, an increase from 700,000 to 18 million ducats between 1570 and 1751. I make that 1.8% per year.
  • Gold inflation of 300% in 100 years. 1.1% per year.
Those aren't even inflation rates, just increases in currency. Given that populations and economies were getting larger, the actual inflation rate must have been even lower.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
[ Parent ]
Silver inflation by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #5 Mon Apr 28, 2008 at 06:15:19 AM EST
Well of course these things are multi-factorial ... I haven't followed up the European side much before, but I remember John King Fairbank citing it as one cause of the decline of the Ming dynasty in his A History of China. The availability of silver destroyed the Chinese terms of trade and tax base, like many Chinese dynasties they had a Ron Paul commodity standard based on silver. So it was a fairly mainstream theory on that side, until recently at least.

It's interesting to hear Adam Smith's take ...

The quick google searches on the same topic seem to see the use of silver as a symptom of Ming commercialism. Eg.

The Political Science Department of the University of Woolloomooloo

[ Parent ]
Christian expansion. by Billy Goat (4.00 / 1) #3 Sun Apr 27, 2008 at 02:24:57 AM EST
Maybe it isn't a matter of monotheism, so much as with Christianity - like Roman and Hellenistic civil thought and the Mauryan's Jainism - there is an intellectual framework for expansion and assimilation or destruction. With the Romans and Hellenistic folks, the framework is mainly civic (loyalty to the empire trumps ethno/cultural identity). With Christians and Jainism it is mainly theological (conversion campaigns, "sharing the path").

By contrast, the monotheistic Jews of ye olde times were ok with the destruction, but they weren't so big on conversion. Either you were part of the tribe or you weren't and it was a matter of birth, not chosen political or spiritual loyalties.

Just a thought. I don't know how well it works with what you've learned.

Christianity, expansionism and all that jazz by Tonatiuh (2.00 / 0) #7 Tue May 06, 2008 at 11:46:47 AM EST
Christianity is an all embracing religion, its aim is to bring the good news of the gospel to everybody, this was mandated by Jesus himself in no uncertain terms and zealots take that mandate very seriously.

I have never been hassled by a Muslim, a Jew or  a Buddhist to embrace Allah, Jehovah or to find my way to enlightenment, in the other hand I am fed up with Christians of all denominations trying to convince me it is always me who is wrong and why I should embrace Jesus, etc, etc.

Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, was a complete psychopath, and as a matter of fact was an outlaw when he embarked in the conquest of Mexico, but he was also deeply religious (as most people were back then) and was fully convinced that one of his duties was to convert all the natives. All the Spanish adventurers had a similar mindset and the Catholic Church did precious little to temper their murderous zeal, this provided an undeniable factor that encouraged the conquest at all costs.

If one could have any doubts about how orchestrated and methodical the extermination of native religions was, it should be enough to remember that all symbols of native religions were destroyed, and to make sure the message got across, catholic churches were built, normally in exactly the same places were the old temples used to stand. When Cortes met local people of influence on his way to Tenochtitlan, he first tried to convert them to Christianity and he dealt  later with the practicalities of the conquest. That is how important it was to make the work of god.

I am no religious expert, but I am not sure if any other religions has been so relentless as Christianity in the New World.

There was also an orchestrated propaganda (I can't think of a better word) about the ways of the natives. For example it is often claimed that  the Aztecs used to sacrifice thousands of people at once (propagated legend claims as many as 20000 in one go) but no burial site of such proportions has ever been found. As a matter of fact modern archaeologists have found precious little to suppose that this was common practice, most likely what happened is that the early catholic priests methodically made the religious costumes of the local look in the worst possible light (most surviving Aztec codexes were compiled with the help of catholic priests), exaggerating some barbaric practices (like human sacrifice and self inflicted bleeding) while ignoring others (only nobility was deemed worthy of human sacrifice).

A young Mexican archaeologist whose name escapes me, pointed out that while in Europe it was common practice at the time to finish off injured adversaries in a battlefield during a war, in wars in early Mexico the aim was not necessarily to kill the enemy, and it was completely unworthy to kill injured noblemen, the main aim was to capture some noblemen in order to offer them to the god of the Sun so he will continue to come back each morning. What is more civilized is left as an exercise to the reader.

From the point of view of the Aztecs, Cortes and his men engaging in regular battle was a complete anathema, and they only dared to attack them once they desecrated one of their major religious ceremonies.

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